Saturday, August 16, 2003

GOOD RIDDANCE: Idi Amin is dead. I can't say I'm sorry to hear it.
It made me think of this somewhat cliched, but still wholly apt, poem from Auden:
Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

Thursday, August 14, 2003

REINDEER GAMES: Any post that discusses the loopy theories of early 19th century Utopian socialist Charles Fourier already wins major points. But the brilliant Chris Brooke not only manages to mention Fourier's discussion of the giraffe, counter-giraffe (or reindeer) and anti-giraffe, but to connect it to Kant's discussion of reindeer (which I'd never noticed before).
So very cool.
And who says the blogosphere doesn't make a significant contribution to the store of human knowledge?

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

FUN WITH CONVENTIONS: As part of my nerving up for attending the APSA convention later this month (I'm not presenting a paper. I'm not a job candidate. Why the hell am I going? A combination of irrational optimism and sheer masochism, I imagine), I've been reading Brad DeLong's reports from the AEA's convention. My favourite quote (no doubt because it involves the place where economics and political theory meet):
"There! By mixing my labor with this table and these chairs, I have appropriated them out of the Lockeian state of nature and have made the right to sit at them for the next two hours my private property!" "Throwing your sportcoat on a table is mixing your labor with it?" "Don't fight with me, go fight with John Locke." "He's dead. And I thought items in the state of nature were things like trees... soil... animals to be domesticated... not tables and chairs made in the Shenzhou Special Economic Zone." "I don't inquire into how they got into the state of nature, I just observe that the right to sit at them for the next two hours was in the state of nature, and that I have just appropriated it." "Well, now that you have Locked in our seats, I had better see if I can find someone to sell us drinks. Oh. Isn't there something about 'as much and as good' left for others, and wasn't this the last free table?" "You seem to think that I am using Lockeian doctrines as part of a serious philosophical argument to justify our monopolizing this table. I'm not. I'm using it as an ideology--as a plausible but ultimately specious justification that gives us the right to ignore the glowers of others standing around, others who clearly wish we would get up and leave so that they can sit down here instead."
Wow. Economists are dorky. It's really cute, actually -- or would be if it weren't for all the data sets.

OF DEMOCRACY, DISAGREEMENT, AND DISTORTION: Via OxBlog, the TNR is seeing a knock-down, drag-out (or is it the other way around? I can never keep these things straight) fight between Fareed Zakaria and Robert Kagan over the latter's blistering review of the former's book The Future of Freedom in TNR a few weeks back. Zakaria has now responded to Kagan, who's fired back in turn.
I find this debate quite interesting (and indeed devoted the last session of my Intro to Political Philosophy course to reading Zakaria's article on 'Illiberal Democracy' and Kagan's assault on Zakaria.) First of all, whenever two polemically gifted, alliteration-spouting (come on, let's face it -- this debate is really about whether The Future of Freedom or Of Paradise and Power is the better alliterative book title -- right?), widely learned and politically engaged Yale-educated neo-conservatives [addendum: Josh Chafetz disputes the identification of Zakaria as a neo-con. He being an actual neo-con -- and actually owning a copy of The Essential Neo-Conservative Reader -- I'll take his word as authoritative, if not absolutely decisive] start duking it out, fun is sure to ensue (actually, come to think of it, this whole thing is sort of what the YPU once prided itself on pretending to be). However, the debate goes well beyond that: it concerns fundamental questions at the heart of US domestic and, especially, foreign policy, about the merits of democracy as a system and an ideal -- and about how we can best reform our own political system, and what goals should guide our actions abroad.
Thus far, the debate, as one would expect, seems inconclusive. I've read Zakaria's original article, though not his book, so I can't pronounce on how justified Kagan's account of Zakaria's position is. On the one hand, Zakaria's Foreign Affairs article didn't evince the fondness for dictatorships with which Kagan charges Zakaria. Indeed, Kagan's article struck me as overly nasty and often unfair.
On the other hand, Kagan is right that Zakaria is sort of slippery in his use of the classifications 'democracy' and 'liberal'. Zakaria does identify certain regimes as democratic, so as to make it easier to identify and criticize the phenomenon of illiberal democracy -- Belarus being Kagan's primary example. And Zakaria did in his original article evince a respect for China which bothered me; certainly, China -- or Pinochet's Chile, or present day Pakistan -- don't strike me as very liberal at all (nor does Singapore, one of Zakaria's foremost examples of a liberal autocracy, though I don't know so much about that nation).
So, Kagan seems to me to be right, in holding that Zakaria sometimes blurs the borders between economically modernizing autocracies, and liberal ones; and between 'illiberal' democracies, and autocracies or dictatorships hiding behind a democratic, or demagogic, facade. (Indeed, the lack of a consideration of demogic authoritarianism or Caesarism as separate political types was an omission in Zakaria's original article that bothered me).
However, others have made these criticisms, as well as Kagan's point that, in practice, liberalism and democracy often do go together -- Marc Plattner in Foreign Affairs after Zakaria's first article came out, back in 1997, John B. Judis in Foreign Affairs earlier this year, and Stephen Holmes in The American Prospect -- and they've done so with considerably more nuance and civility, and greater fairness towards Zakaria's position, than I think Kagan's demonstrated.
At the heart of all this, though, is I think a more basic philosophical, and temperamental, divide: between aristocratic conservatives, who have a pessimistic view of humanity and are sceptical of attempts to achieve a just, radically different order quickly; and ardent, radical liberal-democrats who believe that politics must be guided by the pursuit of justice, and regard the acceptance of slow and half-way measures, and dubious and unjust means, in order to eventually achieve desirable results in the distant future, with considerable suspicion. It's a continuation of the battle between Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville (who made a good many of Zakaria's points, with it seems to me from what I've read far greater psychological and social insight and nuance, 170 years or so ago) on the one hand, and Tom Paine and the philosophical radicals, including J.S. Mil,l on the other (this isn't entirely accurate with regards to Mill, perhaps, who was after all good friends with Tocqueville, and had his own doubts about democracy. I'd also note, as I have to, being me, that Isaiah Berlin came down on both sides of this issue -- Zakaria's distinction between liberalism and democracy could as well, and for all I know very well might be, lifted from 'Two Concepts of Liberty', while the anti-Zakaria point that the use of autocratic means to achieve liberal, democratic ends is likely to devour those ends and lead only to further autocracy is an important moral that can be derived from Berlin's writings on Herzen. The old fox knew many things, only some of which Zakaria and Kagan each have acknowledged.) (For another shot fired from the bow of TNR against Burkean conservatism and pessimism, see this piece by Dan Drezner. Dan's article is very good, even if he hasn't managed to silence the voice of my inner Burkean [or inner Burke. But it's a Burke speaking with a Latvian, than Irish, accent. Figures.] And the healdine isn't really fair -- I don't think Burke, or Zakaria, is actually illiberal. Though that's a question to consider.)
Now, what, you may ask dear reader, is my view on all this? Well, this blog ain't called Sitting on a Fence for nothing. I think the positions from which both Zakaria and Kagan write contain much wisdom -- and also dangers. I think Zakaria's fondness for liberalizing autocrats (and for British imperialism) is misguided, and, were it put into practice, could lead us to repeat some of our worst mistakes from the Cold War, when the US all too often supported 'friendly' (i.e . anti-Communist -- or anti-Socialist -- or anti-democratic) dictators (such as Pinochet), who were bad, bad men. On the other hand, I think that a certain caution and recognition that democracy can't simply be imposed on people quickly, or plunked down anywhere and left to flourish, are vital, especially in light of the Bush administration's (thus far deeply irresponsible, poorly-thought-out, poorly-executed, and often hlaf-hearted or half-assed) attempts at promoting democracy.
Burke has his uses and his merits, after all. He was right about the French Revolution -- remember that?
At the same time, certain despairing disciples of de Tocqueville might want to cast their minds back to some of the less-read pages of the Master's masterpiece, Democracy in America -- I think especially of the 20th chapter of (if I remember correctly) the 2 part of Volume II, on historians in democratic societies, and to the concluding chapter of Volume II, where Tocqueville warns against the dangers of despair, and of falling into a belief in historical inevitability, and thus powerlessness to achieve desired and desirable goals through intelligent, judicious human action. He reminds us that, albeit within limits, man is strong and free, and may yet be able to remake his own world for the better -- to respect equality and justice, while asserting and preserving liberty and dignity.
This strikes me as a more inspiring, as well as more judicious and lucid -- and wiser -- perspective than either Zakaria or Kagan have, for all their merits, yet offered.
(And this, by the way, is why one should study political philosophy - or at least one of the reasons.)

AND YET MORE ON ISRAEL -- WHEN WILL IT END? I should really know better by now. This is the problem with writing about Israel. I go on and on about it -- pretty reasonably, I think (I certainly wouldn't retract anything I've said). And then I find out about something like this happening. And there's really not much more to be said, other than that this war between Israel and the Palestinians is horrible.
So far, at least from the Times article, the Israelis don't seem to be handling things badly, and this is some cause for relief, and respect. On the other hand, I do find Sharon's statement that "Israel will not be able to continue with the process, despite her strong desire to do so, if terrorism does not stop completely" disturbing. Obviously, the Palestinian leadership needs to work with Israel to crack down on Palestinian terrorism; and obviously, how far Israel can go in moving towards peace is severly constrained by it's need to defend itself against Palestinian terrorism.
However, it is simply unrealistic to expect the Palestinian authority, in its present weak state, to end terrorism completely (the Israelis haven't been able to end it completely, with their well-trained, well-equiped military, their single-minded resolve, and their apparent utter lack of concern with how their actions make the Palestinians feel; so how is the Palestinian Authority leadership supposed to magically freeze all terrorism?) It's also hard to give full credit to Sharon's declarations that he wants peace, when he's been so slow to make any concessions, even ones which would improve, or at least not endanger, security. It still seems to me like Sharon wants a one-sided, or at least deeply unequal, peace process.
But, Israel has been attacked by two Palestinians, and two Israelis have been killed; and Sharon and the Israeli people are perfectly right to want to not have to live with this constant horror -- and to demand that it stop. But stopping it may require sacrifices on both sides -- sacrifices which many on both sides have thus far been unable to get themselves to make.
Until they do, this sort of thing will certainly continue. Whether it'll continue even if the Israeli and Palestinian leadership is genuinely dedicated to the pursuit of peace is another question, and one which I can't answer.

STILL MORE ON ISRAEL: Sometimes my friend Jacob and I disagree about Israel-related matters (and when we do, whoah boy!) And sometimes we agree. This is one of those times. The articles Jacob links to are well worth reading; the first one, linking the destruction of Palestinian homes to the observance of Tisha B'av, is quite compelling, and (for me at least) indignation-provoking. I have a few reservations regarding the second article -- I don't think that there's anything wrong with trying to safeguard a Jewish majority WITHIN the pre-1967 borders. The author mainly criticizes Israel for, as part of it's self-conception as a Jewish State, treating the Arab population within Israel unequallyand unjustly -- and with this I wholeheartedly agree: Israel's policy of treating Israeli Arabs as 2nd or 3rd class citizens (I'd say 3rd class, since many of the dark-skinned Sephardic Jews occupy the 2nd class slot) is clearly one of its great, continuous crimes and follies. But it seems to me that, while this unjust treatment of the Israeli Arabs, and attempts to retain the Jewish majority within Israel's proper bordes, are related in that both are expressions of the idea ofa Jewish State, they are distinct; I would argue that the former is decisively outside the bounds of moral acceptability, while the latter isn't.
Of course, not everyone would accept this distinction; and if one doesn't, then the attempt to combine liberalism and Zionism fails -- a failure that would suit some people just fine, and which the current Israeli government seems to be doing its best to effect. But I care about both liberalism and Zionism, and I'm not ready to throw one or the other away; nor do I think it intellectually or morally imperative to do so.
What is morally -- and politically -- imperative, though, is to resist and condemn Israel's engaging in apartheid-style actions -- and on this I wholly agree with Jacob and the authors to whom he points.

THE ASHCROFT JUSTICE DEPARTMENT: LOWER AND LOWER: Even the usually fairly (though always thoughtfully) conservative Volokh conspiracy is seeing disatisfaction with Ashcroft's DOJ (not so surprising , given Volokh's libertarian bent).
What can one say? You want to talk about taking sides in the culture war - the DOJ has done it. Ashcroft seems to be using the law to go after those he doesn't like (many of whom are also those who are already fairly vulnerable), and he's doing so with a lack of restraint and respect for due process and transparency that is really, really scary.
I know that, when it comes to citing really bad decisions on the part of the Bush administration, one's spoiled for choice; but putting Ashcroft in charge of the DOJ has got to rank pretty high up there.

Monday, August 11, 2003

FURTHER THOUGHTS ON THE STAR OF DAVID: Often times, it helps, when considering contentious points of symbolism connected to a particular group -- especially a grop of which one is oneself a member -- to think, hypothetically, about a roughly analogous case.
So, how about this. The crescent is a symbol generally associated with Islam. It is also to be found as a symbol on the flag of, for example, Turkey. Now, if I were a cartoonist wanting to attack Turkish oppression of, say, the Armenians, or Cypriots, or Kurds, I could conceivably use the crescent in a cartoon -- say, depict the crescent as a scythe cutting down innocent (largely Christian) victims. And I could rightly claim that this was using a Turkish symbol to criticize certain instances of Turkish policy.
But some might object. They might point out the larger resonance of the crescent; and they might point out that, particularly after 9/11, invoking symbols associated with Islam in general in this way, so as to associate them with violent brutality, might not be in the best of taste of judgment -- that it might offend some, and delight others, for all the wrong reasons. And therefore, were I a cartoonist, I'd try to think up a way to criticize Turkish actions without seeming to condemn Islam in general, or associate it with bloodthirstyness and oppression.
Now, in the case of Auth's cartoon, things are even more loaded, both because of the original Nazi cartoon which Auth's so closely and creepily resembles, and because many people, when they see the Magen David, and barbed wire, and haggard figures in camps, have a rather strong reaction and go a little haywire because of particular historical associations.
Are such people over-reacting? Maybe. But it's a predictable, and avoidable over-reaction.
Which is why I suspect that Auth either intended to give offense, or was being incredibly dense about the likely impact his cartoon would have. This strikes me as irresponsible, at the least -- and probably somewhat lousy of him personally.
That doesn't make Auth an anti-semite by any means, much less a Nazi. It makes him, at worst, a jerk, and at best, merely politically incompetent. I really didn't mean to criticize him for being any more than one or the other -- and I think that's bad enough.

OUT OF THE CROOKED TIMBER OF EUROPE: By way of the invaluable, and tastefully named, Crooked Timber blog, I've come across this piece on European intellectuals and the idea of Europe by Helen Szamuely. Szamuely seems to me to correctly identify one of the central problems of the EU, and what bothers me the most about it -- it's move to a managerial model of politics, rather than one focussed on the traditional values, and conflicts, of modern liberal and democratic politics. (Szamuely suggests that a stronger British voice might help correct this. As an anglophile, I'd like to think so; but during my time in the UK, and especially when Blair was still going on about New Labour, before he had a nice moral crusade in the Gulf -- and the UN -- to focus on, I noticed, and was disturbed by, the increasing domination of British political discourse, and even thought, by this same managerial and even corporate, efficiency-oriented, technocratic-jargon-bespotted mentality and rhetoric.) Even if the EU should be run benevolently and should function beneficently (and with the French largely in charge .... ?), there is something not only worrisome, but deeply dispiriting, in this technocratic vision of consensus. Europe has known all too much conflict; I fear that it may embrace an existence with too little.
All of this brought to mind an attempt, from 1959, by a distinguished European (and British) intellectual, to define and speak for the 'European values' and the European mission that Mssrs. Derrida, Habermas, Eco et. al. have been cogitating over recently. I refer, naturally, to Isaiah Berlin's essay 'European Unity and its Vicissitudes', available -- aptly enough! -- in The Crooked Timber of Humanity. And it brought to mind Berlin's earlier writings, from the late '40s and '50s, culminating in his classic essays 'Two Concepts of Liberty' (1957) and 'Does Political Theory Still Exist?' (1961; originally published, appropriately, in French), throughout which he warned of "the replacement of the governance of men with the administration of things" -- and of the loss of liberty and individuality threatened by the repression of conflict by managerial control.
So, yes, there is a valuable, indeed necessary, English (indeed, Russo-Anglo-Jewish -- how's that for a hyphenated, cosmopolitan identity?) voice that has much to contribute to the discussion of Europe's future and her values -- and he's been there to read for decades. I can only hope that the EU's rulers, and inhabitants, will take him up, and listen to what he has to say.
Ok. Glad I've gotten my Berlin-plug for the week out of the way. Whew.

AH, THE LONDON TUBE: Happy memories indeed. Maria at Crooked Timber remembers the Tube fondly -- and provides yet another reason for prefering inefficient, maddening, lovable Britain to its neighbour across the channel.

HUFFING AND PUFFING: Apparently, expressing any form of moral outrage -- or, at least, moral outrage against critics of Israel who either stoop to or stray into anti-semitic imagery -- counts, for my friend Jacob, as "get[ting] into a huff" (Jacob, of course, has never been known to become polemical, or express emotionally immoderate disapproval of, or disagreement with, anyone; or, if he has, it doesn't constitute a huff, but rather another glorious moment in the proud history of activism.)
Jacob is merely briefly dismissive, which is, I suppose, better than being wrong at great length. Happily, this onerous duty has been taken on by yet another Yalie, unknown to me, named Josh Eidelson, whose post on the matter deserves rather more attention.
So, let's see here. My fellow Josh writes:"The cartoon, which depicts a fence in the shape of a Jewish star dividing Palestinian civilians, has come under fire – as do most on the left about Israel – as not only critical of the Sharon government but anti-Israel, and not only anti-Israel but antisemitic."
Now, first note the remark about those on the Left coming under fire; we're dealing, it would seem, with a case of ideological animus -- nay, an ideological persecution complex. I note this, not as an argument against Mr. Eidelson -- it doesn't affect the point he's trying to make, which seems to me wrong in other ways and on its own merits -- so much as to highlight a deeply unfortunate and, to me increasingly irritating, feature of contemporary political discourse generally, and especially discussions of the Middle East: the desire to portray oneself and one's comrades as victims. This is partly due to the fact that, for all the warnings by Bertrand Russell and others that victims are not necessarily morally superior, many of us still have a tendency to equate persecution with virtue -- a laudable tendency in that it makes us respectful of dissenters and averse to persecution, as we should be; but an intellectually dangerous one as well. But there also seems to be a growing attraction to the role of victim in itself -- a wallowing in victimhood, a sheer love of whining and feeling put upon. Mr. Eidelson is far from being a very advanced case of this malaise, and I really am just using this one, minor side-comment as an opportunity to express this thought, which has often occurred to me, and which will no doubt appear on this page again.
Now, to the actual matter at hand. Note how Mr. Eidelson moves from being anti-Sharon to being anti-Israel, and from being anti-Israel to being anti-Semitic. As he would insist, these are all very distinct things; and he is right that many extreme and dogmatic defenders of Israel casually ignore this distinction, to their great dishonour. However, Mr. Eidelson seems to be trying to do the same, in reverse. The cartoon in question, so far as I can tell, doesn't mention Mr. Sharon at all. It depicts the Star of David as a detention fence. Now, the Star of David, to be sure, is the symbol of Israel; and so it could be taken to be simply anti-Israel (which is already going well beyong being anti-Sharon). But the Star of David is also the symbol of the Jewish people as a whole. In this case, it is difficult, on the level of symbolism, to distinguish between being anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic. Which is not to say that Mr. Auth is anti-Semitic. It is merely to say that, if he wanted to criticize Israel, without opening himself up to charges of anti-Semitism, he would have done better to choose a less ambiguous way of doing so. (A cynic might wonder if Mr. Auth didn't choose such an ambiguous and loaded symbol on purpose, to create a disruption -- and allow people like Mr. Eidelson to complain about how Right-wingers confuse being anti-Semitic with being anti-Israel, anti-Sharon, etc.)
Mr. Eidelson seems to regard the "appropriation" of the Star of David as the symbol for Israel -- and, thus, the symbol for supporters of Israel, including diehard Likudniks (and worse) -- as somehow making it cease to be a symbol of the Jewish people (incidentally, he mistakenly refers to it, in this capacity, as a religious symbol. In fact, it isn't -- it doesn't, to my very poor knowledge, have much religious significance at all. It is, rather, a symbol of the Jewish people AS A PEOPLE -- a nation, a race, an ethnicity, an extended, dysfunctional family -- however you want to define peoplehood (I, for obvious reasons, prefer the last named definition, but no matter).
The Jewish Star represents far more than Israel; it always has; it continues to do so. It can be found on synagogues all over the world -- many of which are still prone to defacement and even attack by anti-semites (some of them acting in the name of, and perhaps even actually in sympathy for, the Palestinian cause). It has been worn -- sometimes proudly and voluntarily, sometimes forcibly and with shame and fear -- by Jews throughout history. Most emotionally potent for me, it was the symbol that the Nazis forced the Jews to wear -- the symbol that allowed them to identify and pick out the Jews, first for stigmatization, then for round-up, torture, and murder. Anyone who uses the Star of David as a symbol will invoke all of these memories -- and will stir up the emotions tied up with them.
Now, I entirely agree with Mr. Eidelson about the need to distinguish between the Jewish people, the State of Israel, and the current Israeli government and its policies; what he says about this is utterly convincing, valid, and valuable. But it seems to me that he's using this particular case to make that point -- and that he's chosen his case badly. As he writes, "Symbolic politics is inherently potent and inherently fraught. And all cartoons are charicature." All cartoons are caricature, yes; but there is caricature, and there is caricature -- a cartoon in Die Sturmer is a rather different sort of caricature than one in the New Yorker. And given how potent and fraught symbolic politics are, we should be careful in how we employ symbols -- and may with justice criticize others for not taking such care -- ESPECIALLY when we agree with the point they were trying, or may have been trying, to make.
I oppose the building of Mr. Sharon's fence, I oppose the occupation of the West Bank, I oppose the continued building of settlements, and I oppose the continued denial by Israel of the Palestinian's right to self-rule. And for that very reason, I'm particularly bothered by those who, in seeking to criticize Sharon and his country for the policies I oppose, fall into clumsy, offensive, unjust, hysterical, or extremist rhetoric and symbolism. My original post concentrated on pointing out the dangers of such ham-handed and insensitive use of symbols by the anti-Sharon, anti-occupation cause; and I remain convinced that Auth's cartoon was a deeply foolish, as well as possibly intentionally offensive, piece of political symbolism.
Did Auth know he was closely imitating a Nazi anti-Semitic cartoon? I don't know. If he did, he obviously acted stupidly and offensively (as Jacob acknowledges). But what if he didn't? It seems to me that, knowing the symbolic weight and varied resonances and meanings of the Star of David, he still acted foolishly and offensively -- less foolishly and offensively to be sure, than if he was deliberately echoing the Nazis (I mean, WHO DOES THAT?), but foolishly and offensively nonetheless.
I mean, come on, guys: Israel is building a fence around the settlements, its continuing to build settlements it promised to halt --again -- and it's introduced an apartheid-style marriage law. It should be very easy to criticize Israel on its merits right now, and not be open to imputations of anti-Semitism from any reasonable person.
And then Tony Auth comes along and kicks up this storm, and, lo and behold, everyone who's been slinking about silently trying to ignore the marriage law is suddenly up in arms.
Auth's cartoon was in bad taste, an example of poor judgment -- and a gift to Likudniks. And if those who oppose Israel's unjust policies don't realize the dangers to their cause posed by its own supporters -- well, it's small wonder the peace movement isn't getting anywhere, is it?

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